Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Crusaders: a decade of excellence
By TONY SMITH, The Press
Tuesday, 03 June 2008

In the attention-deficit disordered world of professional sport, it is tempting to term the latest Super rugby success as the best since Adam turned out at the Garden of Eden.
But that would be a cop-out in the case of the Crusaders.

Richie McCaw's men won their seventh title in 11 seasons on Saturday night. As a dynasty, they now are rivalling the likes of basketball's Chicago Bulls in the 1990s or football's Real Madrid squad of 50 years ago, though there is some way to go to match rugby league's St George Dragons' 11-titles-in-a-row team from 1956 to 1966.

Saturday's victory over the Waratahs was compulsive viewing because of its closeness. The game hung in the balance until Dan Carter's late penalty.

But, hand over heart now, and be honest. It wasn't the Crusaders' best grand final performance. There were too many turnovers and option-taking errors to classify it as a classic.

Comparing campaigns is always a fraught exercise. Rugby's rules change almost as frequently as its personnel. Exoduses are annual, but are always most keenly felt after World Cup year, when Japanese and European clubs plunder the Australian, South Africa and New Zealand larders.

I've covered Crusaders campaigns, in some shape or form, since the first title triumph in 1998. In that rookie year I tagged along on the team's pre-season tour to Ashburton and South Canterbury.

My memory apart from the shocking sight of teak-tough Todd Blackadder shaving his legs (to make it easier to tape up his shin splints, he reckoned) is of a team spirit growing among a group of young men that had had a rocky baptism to Super 12 rugby.

Their rugby renaissance was forged on tradition a torch passed down by coach Wayne Smith and manager Robbie Deans, two Canterbury Ranfurly Shield heroes and old-school values imparted by gnarly veteran coaching assistant Peter Sloane.

Four months later, a team of tyros were Super 12 champions for the first time. Another eight finals on they are still raising the bar for Super 14 performance.Only two faces remain from the Class of 98 now that Deans and Reuben Thorne have left for foreign shores: Greg Somerville and assistant coach Mark Hammett.

Yet the legacy continues.
So, what was the Crusaders' best year? Which was its best team? Robbie Deans would argue this one. But then he says that every year. Allow us this wallow in nostalgia as we wind back the years.

1998: Crusaders 20 Blues 13, at Auckland.
Memorable, first and foremost because it was the first and last time that the Blues, aka Auckland, were on the receiving end. James Kerr's career flared as briefly as a comet but he will for ever be a hero for his match-winning try.

1999: Crusaders 24 Highlanders 19, at Dunedin.
The best atmosphere of all in an all-South Island final at Carisbrook. Crusaders and Highlanders fans stood side by side, brothers in arms on the terraces as All Black buddies like Anton Oliver and Mark Hammett hammered the heck out of each other.

2000: Crusaders 20 Brumbies 19, at Canberra.
The "three-peat". The Crusaders completed a troika of titles on the road but this was their first under new coach Robbie Deans. This was the hardest slog in the freezing cold climes of Canberra, where the Crusaders tackled themselves to a standstill and Ron Cribb scored a cheeky kick-and-chase try.

2002: Crusaders 31 Brumbies 13, at Christchurch.
The first home final was a comprehensive romp, the Crusaders outclassing George Gregan's men to complete an unprecedented unbeaten season.

2005: Crusaders 35 Waratahs 25, Christchurch.
The last Super 12 final brought out the best in the Crusaders, who scored five tries and romped to a 35-6 win before taking their foot off the Sydneysiders' wind-pipe and conceding three soft tries. A perfect farewell to departing All Black aces Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens.

2006: Crusaders 19 Hurricanes 12, Christchurch.
A climatic classic thanks to the fog which shrouded the ground for the first Super 14 final. Casey Laulala snuck through in the gloom for the game's only try. Referee Jonathan Kaplan came close to calling off the game at half time but the players chose to continue.

2008: Crusaders 20 Waratahs 12, Christchurch.
Tight, tense and just one try to the Crusaders, who shut out the Tahs in the second half with a defensive display plucked from the pages of the Canberra 2000 textbook.

Best season: 2002. Can't beat an unbeaten year. Never been done before and unlikely again.

Best final: 2005. A pulsating start by a Crusaders side composed entirely of current or future All Blacks, with another four on the bench.
In selecting my Crusaders team of the decade (1998-2008), it's more a case of who to leave out, not who to put in.
On-field and off-field qualities are considered, and I'll cheat a little with the backline composition.

Fullback: Leon MacDonald. Wings: Rico Gear, Caleb Ralph.
Midfield-five eighths: Aaron Mauger, Dan Carter, Andrew Mehrtens.
Halfback: Justin Marshall.
No.8: Todd Blackadder.
Flankers: Richie McCaw, Reuben Thorne.
Locks: Chris Jack, Norm Maxwell.
Props: Greg Somerville, Dave Hewett.
Hooker: Mark Hammett.

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